New Conference Reveals Workplace Best Practices

Highlights From Sessions

Best Places to Work ConferenceIn a highly interactive and energetic day-long session, Counselor magazine hosted its first-ever Best Places to Work Conference last Thursday at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, CA. The main topic of discussion: How to motivate employees and create a hyper-productive and successful workplace. “The best companies today are ones that have a huge focus on communication and making sure that their employees are engaged in their work,” said Greg Harris, president of research firm Quantum Workplace, during the first session of the day. “You need to connect closely with people so they feel a part of the everyday mission of the company, and they feel truly vested in its success.”

The conference went on to present one-on-one interviews between ASI editors and industry executives to find out how they create motivated and energized workplaces. “I think it comes down to empowering your people and consistently finding new ways to challenge, motivate and excite them,” said Lon McGowan, CEO of supplier firm iClick (asi/62124), during the final session of the day, which concluded with a sampling of local Southern California beers. “You have to find the right people who are flexible enough to grow and change with the company.”

Here are more highlights from sessions at the conference.

Social Media Improves Internal Communication
In a Best Places to Work Conference session whose goal was to prove the value of social media for a company’s internal operations, Rightsleeve founder and CEO Mark Graham showed the audience an array of short videos that succeeded at doing exactly that. “Social today is about story-telling,” Graham said. “We choose to do that a lot of the time through videos.”

But for Graham and Rightsleeve, social media isn’t just a way to appeal to clients and prospects. The company also uses it as a recruiting tool and a method for sharing information with the market about the company’s workplace culture. “We like to tell stories about our culture and our environment through social media,” said Graham. “Of course, this could also get in the hands of buyers – and we like that – but we also want to show potential employees that this is a cool place to work.”

This strategy has worked so well for Rightsleeve that it recently found one of its high-level sales executives straight through Twitter. “One tweet really set the whole process in motion,” Graham said. “We received a message from somebody who knew this person, and then they sent us a tweet, we met them in person after that, and quickly hired them. It all began through Twitter.”

And Graham so embraces social media that he encourages his employees to have as much of a presence – both personally and professionally – on as many networks as possible. Is he afraid that their personal posts will hinder his company’s business goals? Not at all. “People trust what others say in social media,” Graham said during his session. “When employees post work stuff or information about their workplace on their personal social accounts, that’s really special and valuable. We encourage people to have their own accounts and do what they want with them.”

The Power of Transparency
Mitch Mounger, CEO of distributor firm Sunrise Identity, had a clear goal during his Counselor Best Places to Work Conference session: convince attendees to share their financials with employees. Mounger, who runs this fast-growing Seattle-area company, believes that complete transparency with employees is vital to getting their buy-in and motivating them to be as productive as possible.

“People want to be part of a winning team, so they need to know where the team stands,” Mounger said. “So, we share all of our financials with our employees – both the top and bottom line. They even know my salary. I think this kind of transparency makes people work harder to meet the company’s goals.

Ultimately, Mounger said, this kind of culture creates an environment of complete trust between management and employees. Mounger also believes in stressing an entrepreneurial culture at his company, so that employees know they own their work. “We want to give people room to succeed,” he said. “We don’t tell our people what to do – we teach them how to do it so they can do it better on their own. And that kind of environment rules everything we do. We hire and fire based on our entrepreneurial culture.”

But, Mounger also sees a very basic value at the center of his company’s culture: Be nice. “It’s very important at our company,” he said. “We make sure to hire nice people and be nice back to them. It sounds so simple, but companies often don’t do it enough. We really stress it.”

Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Spirit
His industry origin story is one of legend: Over a decade ago, at the age of 22, he fell into the market by happenstance, having decided he wanted to start importing digital cameras. With no seed money, he applied for as many credit cards as he could, maxed them out while starting the business and then had the cojones to invite a local Seattle newspaper to cover the trials and tribulations of being a young entrepreneur at the helm of a start-up just as the tech bubble had burst.

What could have been a disaster became not only riveting reading for the newspaper’s audience, who following the serialized, weekly updates on Lon McGowan’s new company, iClick, but a success story in that the company – just as McGowan was having doubts about his business model – got a single, six-figure order that changed the course of the company’s destiny. Cut to today where iClick routinely wins awards as one of the industry’s premier USB suppliers and McGowan is viewed as a wunderkind and visionary. ASI’s president/CEO, Tim Andrews, asked McGowan during a session at the Best Places to Work Conference – now that his company is nearing its 15-year anniversary and he’s given up the reigns of running the operation day-to-day to move to Colorado with his family – how he maintains that entrepreneurial spirit.

“I think it comes down to empowering your people and consistently finding new ways to challenge, motivate and excite them,” McGowan says. “And also realizing that the people who started with you may not be the same people who are with you now – and that’s okay. You have to find the right people who are flexible enough to grow and change with the company.”

And McGowan, who estimates that he’s spent “about $16,000” on his company’s famous Friday afternoon beer parties for employees over the years, doesn’t take his responsibility as iClick’s founder lightly. “Keeping your people happy is crucial … beer really helps.”

Competing With Ad Agencies
Based in midtown Manhattan, which puts his office right in the heart of the swanky, savvy, uber-creative ad agencies on Madison Avenue that inspired the moniker, “Mad Men,” Larry Cohen’s ad specialty company, Top 40 distributorship Axis Promotions, doesn’t worry one little bit about losing accounts to these slick companies. “Listen, ad agencies in New York City are very, very good at what they do,” Cohen said as he addressed the attendees at the Best Places to Work Conference. “But the really great ones know the smart way to go is to let people like us, in this industry – who are the experts on how effective promotional products can be when used creatively – do our stuff. When they rely on us for that aspect of a campaign, it all comes together.”

Cohen, whose staff is predominately female, maintains that in his experience, women work better in groups than men do, and have the ability, when working together, to craft the most creative campaigns. “People always chuckle about why I have so many women working for me, and I’ll tell you – it’s because they’re amazing.”

And Axis, a company that staunchly believes in the value of using college interns for months on end to work on promo campaigns, has advice for companies struggling with managing multi-generational staffs, especially those with Millennials as employees. “These are the people who are quickly going to become our clients, our buyers – it’s so important for us to understand what motivates them,” Cohen said, adding that he advocates a strategy called “reverse mentoring,” whereby a young person mentors someone older in the company – often in a higher position of authority – to teach them what appeals to their generation, and doesn’t. “At this point, they can learn a little from me, but I can learn a lot from them.”

For pictures from the conference, click here.